Family Drama Has Disastrous Effects in Mad Cow's Captivating OTHER DESERT CITIES
It is often said that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and that very well might prove to be true for the Wyeth family in "Other Desert Cities," playing now through October 27th at Orlando's Mad Cow Theatre. No matter how supportive the family, very rarely do discussions of politics, addiction, and suicide make for good holiday conversation; throw in one well-intentioned lie and the results can be as devastating as they are destructive. Written by Jon Robin Baitz, a Pulitzer finalist and creator of TV's "Brothers and Sisters," which ran on ABC for five seasons, "Other Desert Cities" is directed by Aradhana Tiwari.
The show, which was a Tony-nominee for Best Play in 2012, is a dark comedy centered on an even darker family secret. Though the exposition appears to be rather soapy at first, as the action unfolds, it becomes clear that Baitz is aiming for something far more universal than the set up implies; the fact that love can often be painful. The play takes place at the palatial Palm Springs home of the Wyeth family on Christmas Eve 2004. With the fear of 9/11 still resonating and the war in Iraq still in its infancy, recent events have stirred up painful memories from the family's past.
Though Hollywood leading-man turned California G.O.P. chairman Lyman (Joe Candelora) is the Wyeth family patriarch, early on you realize that his former screenwriter wife Polly (Marty Stonerock) is the rock of the family, with all of the toughness and sharpness that that title implies. When their novelist daughter Brooke (Ginger Lee McDermott) comes home for the holidays with a new manuscript that dives head first into the high-profile family's most painful moment, their fragile peace is quickly shattered. Younger son Trip (Matthew Natale Rush), a reality show producer, does his best to keep that peace, with little to no help from alcoholic Aunt Silda (Marion Marsh), Polly's sister and former writing partner, who has moved in after hitting rock bottom.
Each member of this old-Hollywood family seemingly performs constantly; even in moments of raw, exposed vulnerability, it feels as though every word has a level of calculation. Whether it was while revealing a shocking truth, or telling a self-serving lie, I was never able to determine if the characters' phoniness was a cynical character choice or an acting affectation. Each of the characters is broadly drawn, and while that can occasionally make you question their individual reality, it leads to an entertaining high-stakes emotional drama. Despite the Wyeth's extreme problems, the cast makes them seem like a real, complex family that loves each other in their own complicated way.
The elegant set, designed by William Elliott, subtly adds to the tension by combining various types of cold-colored stone and formal furnishings.
In the end, "Other Desert Cities" reminds us that the ones that we love most, are the ones that can hurt us the most, and getting to that tragic truism is a bumpy, but captivating ride. The show runs two hours and 10 minutes with an intermission and plays through October 27th; to get your tickets, call the Mad Cow box office at 407-297-8788 or visit their website.